This was a big, two-story frame house with a large back yard, only about five blocks from the preceding place. $40 a month, not a cheap rent in those days. On the first floor right, a large entry hallway (big enough for our old Maynard upright piano and a wind-up Victrola), with stairs leading to a landing, then to the second floor. In the middle, a hallway back to the kitchen. The back stairs came from the landing down to this hallway, and there too was the basement door, which also led a few steps down to the side outside door. A very big kitchen, with a large pantry and a back door to a small enclosed porch. Left from the front hall, a big living room, and behind it a formal dining room, connected through a swinging door to the kitchen. Upstairs, a master bedroom, two smaller bedrooms and an enormous bathroom (the same size as the kitchen). It was quite an establishment, maybe the biggest house I've ever lived in.
Of life in this place, stories abound. I spent most of the World War II years there. My brother was born and I went to kindergarten and grades 1-4 while we were there.
The large back yard afforded a wonderful play space. There were three big cherry trees, the bright red, ultra-sour kind. The trick was to get the fruit before the robins did. With the neighbor's apple trees we could get good fruit by just waiting for it to fall, but because of the birds you had to go up and get the cherries while the getting was good. My older sister wasn't much of a tom-boy and my younger brother was much too little, so most of the cherry-harvesting fell to me. Harvesting, of course, was just a convenient reason to be climbing trees, with the dividend of getting one's fill of the delicious cherries, always being sure to put enough in the bucket so mom could make pies and jams.
From the back door a long straight walk stretched back to the cinder alley. For about half its length, this walk was bordered on both sides by grape arbors, purple Concords on the left, some sort of sour green grapes on the right. Many jars of good jelly resulted from that.
Past the arbors was an open space, in which during the war years a sizable vegetable garden was planted. Along the alley on one side was an old chicken coop, a pretty big one, actually, for right in town. It had fallen into disrepair, the windows broken out, and its ammoniac smell was inerradicable. Still, it served as a suitable hiding place in which 5-year-olds (my little girlfriend Jill Knoblock, from across the side street, and I) could smoke cigaret butts cadged from ashtrays. We compared our child anatomies in there too. There's a whole saga surrounding Jill, who was two weeks younger than I. Except for three years when I attended a different primary school (6th-8th grades), we went to school together through high school.
Jill had a bicycle. I coveted that bike as if it were solid gold. The price for riding it was that I had to take her with me, and that we managed to do, all over hell's half-acre in the dreadful drear of Peoria. She was quite a tyrant about it, but I got very strong from it. We fought like cats and dogs, quite a lot of the time, but our mothers had conferred by phone and decided not to interfere unless it looked like somebody's eye was about to be put out. Jill's dad was a prominent attorney and they belonged to one of the town's two country clubs (the lesser one, as I understood it). Since I was as it were a poor relation, they not seldom would take me along, of a summer afternoon, so we could play in the club's pool while her mother and dad played golf. I had learned to swim when I was about 5, so this was always something I very much liked, even though it meant not fighting with Jill so she wouldn't boycott my going that day.
Another fun thing with her was that some family relation owned a private sanitorium on a huge piece of land along the Illinois River a few miles north of Peoria. We called it "going to the farm," as there was in fact a farm there, with a big barn and horses. I was not too wild about the horses, but I loved going up in the hay mow of the barn, where there were countless cats and all sorts of strangeness. The place was surrounded by good-sized hills, and that made for wonderful hiking around. The only thing was, we had to visit with her Uncle James, who was a resident, and I think somewhat senile, in the sanitorium. I found him very creepy, I'm sure because he was so very old (80 or so).
We were both holy terrors. But I was much worse, because I swore and got in all sorts of little-boy trouble all the time. With two neighbor boys, one my age and one a year older, I became a regular bandit, stealing candy bars and small toys from local merchants. Now and then I would get caught, too, and then there would be real hell to pay. Mr. Schwartz ran a small grocery two blocks down the street toward school, and it often had kids in it, more than he could watch. But one time he caught caught me swiping a candy bar, and my parents presuaded him to let me work it off with a nickle's worth of floor sweeping.
One block in the other direction was a large commercial street, which despite the possibility of being hit by streetcars and automobiles I crossed with impugnity by myself when I was only 5. Mr. Southwick had a variety store there, and he caught me one day, copping a toy car. Now you have to understand that I knew perfectly well stealing was a very bad thing, but I didn't like the very prissy Mr. Southwick, so I figured he deserved a bad thing. Not exactly well-honed ethics, but logical in a little-kid way. The dishonesty made sense, because I knew adults were dishonest as hell, no matter what they said.
I had to cross the busy business street to get to the drugstore, too, where my precious nickles would go to ice cream cones. I must have been bribed with ice cream as a child, because to this day it's my favorite treat. One day I was scampering back across the street with my cone, only to discover our dog lying dead on the curb, struck by a streetcar, but fortunely not mangled, just not living. My dad came down and got it and buried it in the back yard.
Also on that street, but on our side, was the neighborhood cinema, the Beverly Theater, where I went every Saturday morning to see the Movietone news, some cartoon or other, a serial (Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Don Winslow of the Navy, and many others) and a double-feature film. Actually, almost the first film I saw there was "Gone With The Wind" in its first run. I didn't appreciate its great length one bit, and I hated all that mushy love stuff with Rhett and Scarlet. Mostly I felt cheated because there was only one film, and to add insult to injury it stayed two weeks. A few years later, I saw "Bambi," which had a big effect on me: I was terrified by the forest fire, and completely beside myself with sadness over the death of Bambi's mother.
These things should definitely not be seen by impressionable children, lest our little psyches get permanently scarred. Ever since, I've entered fully into the world of a film, identifying with the various characters and usually being deeply affected by it. Even then I didn't much appreciate slapstick or other comedy, like the the Three Stooges, the Bowery Boys, the Marx Brothers, or Red Skelton or Bob Hope comedies. I thought all that was utterly sappy. But I loved Sherlock Holmes, any sort of jungle adventure story, especially Tarzan, and most westerns. I also loved the wartime propaganda films. But whatever it was, I watched it.
My mother's sister Irma lived in Wisconsin, where I spent several long vacations. I knew from the films that Indians were Bad Guys, of course, so when on one of these trips it came to pass that we were going to stop in Wisconsin Dells where there would be Indians, I let it be known in no uncertain terms that I was not going near any Indians. Of course, what I expected was guys in loincloths, wearing war bonnets and riding on ponies, who would shoot me with arrows if they got a chance. When we stopped, there was an old fellow doing beadwork on a small loom. I watched him and chatted with him for about 20 minutes, fascinated by the craft, by the beads, by the very fancy geometrical patterns of his design. I couldn't figure out why my mother kept grinning at me in that peculiar way, though. When at last I'd had enough, we got back in the car and she told me that had been an Indian. I was floored, but I also learned right then that things are not always what you expect nor are they always what they seem to be. Ever after I was for the underdog, namely the Indians, in those western films.
War films were a slightly different matter. My dad had been classified 4F (unavailable) because of serious back problems, but they did take him in the Coast Guard Reserves. Most of the kids I knew, however, had draft-eligible fathers, and quite a number of them went off to war. I didn't exactly understand what dying was, still less what grief was, but I was at least sad when I learned that somebody's dad or older brother was not going to be coming back.
The main effect of the war was air-raid drills (my dad was in the Civil Air Patrol, who made sure people had their lights out and so forth) and the rationing of food and fuel. My mother's sister Thelma came to live with us for a while, which was a boon because having another ration book meant being able to get a larger cut of meat, with less fat or bone. Better yet, she was a small eater: more for me.
By the time the war was ending, we were old enough to take part in paper and scrap metal collection drives and in fat-collection drives. In those days everybody saved bacon drippings, and we would take our red wagons to go around the neighborhood collecting fat (used in making munitions, as we understood it). We would take the newspapers to some food market where it would be loaded into trucks. We took the fat to the butcher, who would weigh it and give us red ration points, which could be traded (with suitable cash) for meat items. Another thing consumers contributed to the war effort was metal. No one threw a tin can in the garbage. Instead, they were flattened and collected periodically.
Although sugar was the first thing to be rationed and the last thing to go off rationing, we always seemed to have it. I was to learn about the black market from that. We also got some meat items and butter that way; a guy named Finney would show up with a whole bologna or liverwurst under his arm (two things I've hated from that day to this).
When I got to be a little older one very unpleasant task that fell to me was to go down to Knoxville Avenue, tne nearby business street, to find out which of the three taverns my dad was in and to try to get him to come home for dinner. I had no interest at all in drinking alcohol until I was 21, and as a kid I particularly hated it, as might be expected from having an alcoholic father (I don't think my mother was an alcoholic until later). The bars were terrible dives by any standard, and I was just a little kid, grossed out by the stench of stale beer. I suppose I could have stood that a little better if the old man had not consistently been such a complete asshole. But he was loud, obnoxious, and cruel. I understood why I was being sent: my sister was a girl, my brother was too young, and my mother had her hands full with cleaning, cooking and looking after kids. Still, I didn't like it.
I tell more stories about my father on the page devoted to him. But this "home sweet home" story will illustrate what a jerk he was. One night after dinner, my sister got a licking for something. He had really walloped her with cherry switches on her bare legs and sent her upstairs. I was staying out of sight somewhere, and my mom was washing the dinner dishes, which included a No. 14 cast iron skillet in which fried chicken was usually cooked. My sister was upstairs, crying her eyes out, which my dad could not stand, so he went up there and spanked her again.
When he came down, he lit up a cigaret, leaned against the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room and said (of my sister), "That bitch!" Without a word, my mother, who had been washing the heavy skillet with her back to him, spun around and let it fly, straight at him. He ducked in time, but it hit the doorframe exactly where his head had been; if it had connected (she had thrown it with tremendous force because she was so angry), it probably would have killed him. As it was, it did hurt him, because it then fell on him. He knew better than to try to smack her, though, because she was much stronger than he physically, and sober besides, so he took off for the bar to drown himself yet again in self-pity.
It's not that I never in my whole long life indulged in feeling sorry for myself, because I certainly have done that, but my father's very vivid negative examples helped drive home the point that it's an extremely unattractive trait to have and I've never had any patience with people who resort to it.
It wasn't always that violent or barbaric at home, and there were even rare good times with my dad, but because he was so mercurial and given to completely unpredictable outbursts, one was always ready to disappear like smoke. It was a long way from a proper home atmosphere.
Ironically, that very thing probably lay beneath my own indulgences and bouts of self-pity: I was humiliated and deeply chagrined that home was such an insecure, chaotic place, whereas my little school chums seemed to have what I thought of as normal lives, which I greatly envied. Naturally, there was probably a lot I didn't know about what really went on at their houses.